Sex Work

What Does Decriminalized Sex Work Actually Look Like?

I visited Australia and New Zealand to find out. Spoiler: It’s great for everyone.


What does decriminalized sex work look like in practice? People in Australia (specifically New South Wales) and New Zealand know the answer, because they decriminalized sex work decades ago.

I recently spent six weeks touring my one-woman show, Whore's Eye View, in Australia and New Zealand, where I met sex workers, clients, and brothel owners who negotiate sexual services openly without fear of arrest. After my shows, people from the sex industry—both workers and clients—stayed to tell me their stories. I spoke with people who did sex work to start their own businesses, pursue a passion project, or put themselves through school.

Here's the picture that emerged: Decriminalization has reduced violence and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and it has made it easier for sex workers to hold people accountable who try to hurt them.


Australia is divided into five states, each with its own sex laws. I performed in Adelaide, South Australia, where buying and selling sexual services is still criminalized, and in Newcastle, New South Wales (NSW), which decriminalized sex work in 1995. I got the lay of the land from the Sex Industry Network (SIN), an Adelaide-based group of sex workers that has been distributing safer sex tools, information, and resources since the 1980s.

NSW decriminalized street-based sex work in 1979. But in the early 1980s, police started charging street-based workers with "offensive behavior" and violently raiding brothels or "disorderly houses." In 1983, the government recriminalized soliciting on a public street, creating additional penalties for those who were near a hospital, school, or church.

"It was worse than the mafia. We paid the cops to not arrest us. We had to decide whose turn it was to give them a freebie," says Anna Morrigan, a brothel owner. "Leading up to an election or something, they would do these terrible raids anyway. Parading women out in the street in their underwear. Just cruel, humiliating stuff like that."

It would take decades of activism before the Disorderly Houses Amendment Act of 1995 decriminalized brothels. Today, sex work in NSW is governed not through criminal codes but through civil and public health codes. 

What sort of activism? There was Sallie-Anne Huckstep's brave 1981 interview on 60 Minutes Australia, which exposed how cops extorted sex workers. (This led to the Royal Wood Commission, which concluded that the police are "inappropriate regulators of the sex industry.") In 1985, Debbie Homburg called for a boycott of selling sexual services to politicians until sex work was fully decriminalized. Julia Bates, the first sex industry liaison officer for the South Sydney Council, received a title from the queen for her efforts to decriminalize sex work. Stormy Summers, an Adelaide brothel owner and aspiring politician, spent years pushing for decriminalization in South Australia. (She passed away in March.)

And in 1983, in the midst of the AIDS pandemic, the Australian Prostitutes Collective formed in Sydney. (The group later became the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Scarlet Alliance.) These activists focused on the public health implications of criminalization, pointing out that because police were using condoms as evidence to convict sex workers, people were forced to forgo safer sex practices to avoid arrest.

After a show in Adelaide, one woman told me that she put herself through veterinary school by doing sex work and has no regrets. A couple waited in line to tell me that sex workers had helped sustain their 35-year marriage. In Newcastle, a woman brought her mother to the show to help her understand her line of work.

Morrigan, the brothel owner, says things are much better under full legalization. "No one comes in here and shakes me down for protection money with a gun." An extensive 2017 study by researchers at the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales, and Curtin University confirmed that decriminalization in NSW "allows a highly visible focus on workplace health and safety in brothels and massage parlours."

Both of Morrigan's brothels are well-outfitted with opulent bedrooms, showers, and hot tubs. She has an impressive collection of BDSM dungeon equipment and regularly rents out space for private kink events. After decades in the business, she says, "People do this work for all kinds of reasons. I like to give people a chance. Some people stay for a day, some people stay for years."

Health and safety codes, information about consent and STIs, and common-sense house rules are clearly posted everywhere in Morrigan's brothels. Codes of conduct and the consequences for violating them are spelled out for all to see. Morrigan, like many of the sex workers and managers I spoke with, insisted that the overwhelming majority of clients are respectful.

"We almost never have a problem—and when we do, we can call the police," explains Morrigan. In contrast, here in the United States, sex workers won't report possible serial killers to local authorities for fear of being arrested, being evicted, or having their children taken away. 


New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003, with the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). As in Australia, New Zealand's movement for decriminalization started with sex workers coming together to advocate for themselves.

In 1987, a group of sex workers founded the New Zealand Prostitute Collective (NZPC), which is still active today. I toured NZPC offices in Wellington and Auckland and met with sex workers, physicians, counselors, and community outreach workers. I heard directly about what life was like before the PRA. I learned about historical figures like Carmen Rupe and Georgina Beyer, met with such activist luminaries as Dame Catherine Healy and Annah Pickering, and spoke with brothel workers, independent sex workers, and street-based workers of all genders.

Early on, NZPC found that because police were using condoms as evidence, sex workers weren't using them. In 1991, NZPC—which was receiving funds from the Ministry of Health to combat HIV/AIDS—threatened to stop contracting with the government unless more was done to stop the raids and arrests against sex workers. Eventually, officials recognized that arresting people for using government-provided condoms was self-defeating.

In 2000, partly inspired by the success in New South Wales, NZPC organized a coalition of feminists, police officers, and religious and community leaders to call for the full decriminalization of sex work. The PRA passed on June 25, 2003, after an impassioned speech from Beyer, the first person to be elected to parliament who was out about her former work as a sex worker.*

The PRA decriminalized all forms of sex work, including street-based solicitation. Sex workers aren't required to register, but if more than four work together then someone has to get an operators' certificate for operating a brothel.* Any person who manages a sex worker must also get an operator's certificate. 

A fine for engaging in unprotected sex was set at $2,000. Violations of consent, including removing a condom without a sex worker's knowledge, are a crime.

"Decriminalizing meant that sex work was acknowledged as service work," says Healy.* "Sex workers in New Zealand were able to operate under the same employment and legal rights accorded to any other occupational group."

The results were stunning. In 2008, separate studies by the Prostitution Law Review Committee and the Christchurch School of Medicine found that by removing their illegal status, the PRA made it far easier for sex workers to refuse particular clients and practices. Decriminalization reduced new HIV infections so successfully that Queen Elizabeth II made Catherine Healy a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2018, specifically for services to the rights of sex workers.

The sex workers I met in New Zealand know how lucky they are to live in a country where they can't be arrested for doing their jobs. After a show in Nelson, I met a group of women who relied on sex work while getting their PhDs in sexual health, sociology, and economics. In Dunedin, I met a young woman who worked at a brothel to supplement her income from nonprofit theaters. One trans woman who remembers life before 2003 said: "I don't like the cops. I don't think I would ever call the cops. But I'm not afraid of the cops. Not anymore." A brothel manager in Wellington told me that she's only had to ask a client to leave the premises three times in more than five years of managing the space.

Some of the biggest challenges facing sex workers in New Zealand and Australia stem from policies in America. When the U.S. president signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) in 2018, sex workers on the other side of the world—who weren't doing anything illegal—lost access to many websites, message boards, and banking services.

But they can work legally now—and if they're assaulted, they can do something about it. There are good reasons why decriminalization has been endorsed by Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom Network, America's largest provider of services to victims of sex trafficking. Those reasons are on display in New Zealand and Australia today.

*CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that Georgina Beyer was out about her previous career as a sex worker, to accurately define the requirements of the Prostitution Reform Act, and to correct a quote.